Voice of dignity
People recovering from mental illness are often seen as incapable of productive work. A visit to the Aasha shop in Chennai will help dispel such stereotypes, writes Dr. RADHA SHANKAR.
HOW do people feel when told that a loved one could be suffering from a psychiatric illness and may require treatment and rehabilitation? For many, the initial reaction is disbelief and denial. Subsequently, there is pain and bitterness, an endless search for a miracle cure. On occasion, some caregivers even reject the patient because of their inability to understand the complex nature of psychological problems. This is often calamitous because in a traditional family-centric society, the vast majority of mentally ill live with their families. Also due to the meagre treatment and rehabilitation facilities, the family must act as an umbrella to protect, nurture and sustain its members.
However the process of caring and promoting recovery in mental illness means families require information, support and guidance, which is often hard to come by. More often than not, families cope in a wide variety of ways, with a fatalistic acceptance of what life has given them.
Against this background of a minimally resourced mental health system and passive, resigned family members, a silent but unique movement is slowly growing in the last few years. Small groups of family members are forming self-help groups that will proactively reach out and assist others. Aasha is the first such organisation in India. Founded in 1989, under the guidance of eminent psychiatrist Dr. Sarada Menon, the philosophy of Aasha is "self help". This is echoed by Ratna Chibber who describes herself as a mother, entrepreneur, active member of Aasha and caregiver for a mentally ill brother.
The activities of Aasha are many and include programmes for families to equip them with the knowledge and skills to promote recovery in their loved ones. While mental health professionals provide technical inputs, sharing experiences between families provides emotional support. Aasha also runs a transitional residential facility for recovering patients where members of the Aasha family provide time and effort on a voluntary basis.
Aasha also publishes a quarterly newsletter that provides information and guidance to families and is an effective vehicle to remove stigma and misconceptions associated with mental illnesses. To the 80-year-old editor and family caregiver, A. Rajagopal, the five-year-old newsletter is a testimony to his commitment to provide dignity and hope to the families and patients.
It is often not recognised that people with disability, whether physical or psychological, are averse to sympathy or pity and only seek opportunities that will help them realise their potential. Thus ABILIS, an organisation of people with disabilities based in Finland, chose Aasha to be the recipient of a start-up grant to support work opportunities for people with psychiatric disability. The initial funding provided a platform for Aasha to run a stationery shop in Perambur, Chennai. This venture, which employs both recovering patients and one family member, is proof that people with mental illness can work productively, efficiently and sincerely.
My visit to the shop provided ample evidence of both the enthusiasm and skills of the employees. They maintained logs of queries for various items, tracked fast moving ones and decided inventories, participated actively in pricing strategies and closed accounts each day.
Competing in the open market and dealing with suppliers, customers and the vagaries of a small business has been a big confidence booster.
And what of the future? Ratna Chibber, coordinator, says, "I am not afraid of failure because you need much more than business sense to survive. You need hard work, honesty and a commitment to a goal. Our Aasha family has this in plenty." With the experience gained from the first shop, plans are afoot to start shops in other locations.
People recovering from mental illness are often victims of negative stereotypes that suggest that they are incapable of any productive work. In this sound byte and image driven world, the silent work of Aasha and a visit to the Aasha shop will help dispel many of these stereotypes.
As a psychiatrist who has watched Aasha from the sidelines, my interactions with the organisation have been a profound learning experience.
In these times of great social transition, eroding kin obligations and increasing emphasis on the individual to succeed and growing intolerance towards failure, Aasha has become a small but compelling voice of dignity.
The writer is a psychiatrist and can be contacted at email@example.com
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